Article image

Why we're drawn to certain singing voices: A scientific insight

Why are we drawn to the singing voices of some singers and indifferent to others? This intriguing question has spurred a team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA) to conduct a study focused on unraveling the mysteries of our auditory preferences.

The findings, which challenge conventional wisdom, are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Singing is ubiquitous across cultures and highly popular, but fundamental questions about our preferences remain unanswered,” wrote the study authors. “For instance: why do we like some singing voices more than others? How much are these preferences based on attributes of the singing voice, and how much are they related to listeners’ internal factors?”

“The extent to which aesthetic appreciation depends on objective properties of a stimulus versus a person’s internal subjective states and evaluations has long been debated.”

Comparing singing voices

For the investigation, 368 participants actively evaluated a cappella performances by 16 trained singers both online and in laboratory settings.

“Each singer was asked to perform the songs Don’t Worry Be Happy, by Bobby McFerrin, and Over the Rainbow, by Harold Arlen, without lyrics and in a /u/ sound. Each singer recorded between four and seven takes of each melody,” noted the researchers.

“For each melody, we selected three takes from each of the 16 singers for acoustic analysis and subsequent use in the experiment. The stimulus material thus comprised 48 excerpts of each melody, for a total of 96 stimuli.”

This comprehensive approach sought to determine whether measurable acoustic properties like pitch and tempo, or personal biases and unique perceptions, shape preferences for singing voices more significantly.

Personal preferences for singing voices

Camila Bruder, the lead author of the study, shared her insights: “Intuitively, one would expect that personal preferences for singing voices would be based on certain acoustic criteria. However, our study’s findings pointed us in a different direction.”

Despite initial beliefs, the research showed that the liking for particular singing voices isn’t predominantly about the technicalities of sound.

Participants demonstrated varied preferences, yet the investigation showed that these preferences weren’t strongly linked to the singers’ acoustic characteristics. Rather, the subjective interpretations and personal resonance with the voices predominantly shaped their preferences.

Pauline Larrouy-Maestri, the senior researcher, commented on the broader implications of their findings: “Although we often feel that our acoustic preferences are based on objective criteria, our results suggest that the famous saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ could also be applied to acoustics.”

This insight shifts the focus from external auditory qualities to the internal processes of the listener, suggesting a complex interplay between the sound and the psychology of perception.

Expanding horizons in auditory research

The research team eagerly anticipates expanding their investigation to encompass different vocal styles and the attractiveness of spoken voices. This ongoing research will further uncover the deeply personal and subjective nature of our auditory preferences.

At its core, the study reveals a fascinating aspect of human perception: the listener shapes our experience of sound as much as the sound itself does. This insight urges us to reconsider how we perceive and appreciate voices, whether in song or speech.

The quest to understand our auditory preferences is only beginning as we delve deeper into our complex relationship with sound.

Singing voices in other populations 

“Our finding that mean liking ratings correlated highly between participant samples from Germany and the USA hints at cross-cultural average preferences, presumably based (to some extent) on attributes of the stimuli. However, one should keep in mind that both these samples come from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) nations,” wrote the researchers.

“It would be desirable to investigate singing voice preferences in other populations, ideally including non-WEIRD populations (as well as using stimuli material in other styles and/or from multiple cultures to increase the generalizability of findings).”

“So far, our results suggest that, in the case of the singing voice, preferences depend substantially on both attributes of the performances and on listeners’ characteristics, but this relationship is a complex one: liking ratings do not rely on acoustic features of the voices per se but on how the voices are perceived by participants.”

The study is published in the Scientific Reports.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day